Saved by a Telegram - The Kuna Uprising
My father-in-law, Manuel Celerin, was an educator throughout Panama's early history. He worked as a teacher and later as an inspector of schools and traveled the breadth and width of the country in carrying out his duties. Early on in his career, his life would have come to a dramatic and tragic end had it not been for a curious twist of fate.
This was at a time in Panama when there were few roads and even fewer automobiles. The Canal Zone, which formed a strip of land approximately 50 miles lone and 10 miles wide surrounding the Panama Canal, was the only area with decent transportation. There were not only paved roads but also a fine railway and the Canal itself. Outside of Panama City, travel to the interior was done by bus or car on the few unpaved roads, and where there were no roads, by horseback or boat.
Early in his long career as an educator, Manuel Celerin was assigned as a teacher in the San Blas archipelago. The archipelago, inhabited by the Kuna Indians, is part of the Comarca de Kuna Yala, which means 'Land of the Kuna'. It consists of a chain of approximately 400 islands stretching along Panama's Caribbean coast. Most of the islands are small, not more than football-sized cays covered with palm trees and ringed with pearl-hued beaches. Small indigenous villages can be found on some of the islands, but many are uninhabited.
Most of the Kuna who live in the Comarca reside on 48 densely populated islands that make up the San Blas archipelago. The Kuna are thought to be the only direct descendants of the Caribs, a group of Indians who lived in parts of the Caribbean. They earned the unfortunate distinction of being the first Indians to meet Christopher Columbus. The Kuna live mostly in northeastern Panama under their own constitution and have a total population of 70,000. About 40,000 Indians live on the islands of the archipelago and the rest on the mainland in a region nestled between the provinces of Colon and Darien.
The Kuna have managed to maintain their language and customs despite centuries of outside intervention. They gained autonomy in the 1950s and have made their own laws and managed their own economy ever since. Today, they survive on fishing, coconuts (which they harvest and trade with Colombia) and tourism.
Although men wear western clothes (t-shirts, shorts, baseball caps), women still adorn themselves with the rich colors of their native dress. Bright, geometric beadwork decorates their wrists and arms, red or blue sarongs are wrapped around their waists, and their blouses display colorful molas, hand-stitched appliqués, which often depict animals, birds and scenes encountered in their daily lives. The women's dress is complemented by a headscarf, a nose ring and face-painting.
Genetically, the Kuna have one of the highest rates of albinism in the world. Albinism occurs on a rate of about 1 in 35,000 in the U.S and Europe, but in the Kuna community, the rate is 1 in 165. Because of their sensitive skin and the fierce sun in the tropics, one would think these pale, easily sunburned individuals would face serious discrimination. To the contrary, they are revered and considered to be children of the moon. In their religion, this reverence for the albinos stems from Kuna creation tales, which relate how God sent his albino son into the world to teach humans how to live. The Kuna believe that albinos are endowed with inordinate wisdom, and may even have supernatural powers, such as the gift of healing or the ability to foretell the future. As a result, albinos often play an important role in the Kuna community and become political leaders, shamans or entrepreneurs.
There was growing unrest among the Kuna while my father-in-law was teaching school in the archipelago. He may have noticed this growing resentment to the presence of outsiders, but was not in a position to do anything to alleviate the situation. In mid-February of 1925, he received a telegram from one of his uncles in Las Tablas, a small town in the Azuero Peninsula where he had been born and raised. The telegram urged him to come immediately to Las Tablas because one of his sisters was very ill and in danger of dying. Sr. Celerin requested a leave of absence and on the evening of February 21, he departed on the last available launch to Colon. After reaching the mainland, it took four days for him to reach Las Tablas and the bedside of his ailing sister. She eventually recovered.
Meanwhile, Kuna resentment towards Panamanian influence in the archipelago continued to increase. The historic roots of the Kuna's resistance to outside influence can be traced to the mid-1500s and the attempted imposition of Spanish rule and the Catholic faith upon them. The resistance continued for four centuries thereafter until Panama's independence from Colombia in 1903. Panama faced a home-made secessionist problem. The Kuna were no more willing to accept the authority of Panama than they had been satisfied to accept the authority of Colombia or Spain. The Panamanian government exercised no administrative control over the islands until 1915. At that time, forces of the Colonial Police, composed of blacks, were stationed on several islands. Their presence, along with a number of other factors, led to a revolt on February 22, 1925. Rebellious Kuna Indians struck against various outposts of Panama's government authority in the San Blas region. Armed with guns and machetes and led by their legendary hero Dinuidi, they overwhelmed the Panamanian police force in Playon Chico. When the fighting ended four days later, all outsiders, including 22 Panamanian policemen, as well as several administrators and teachers, had been killed. Twenty Kuna also died during the insurrection.
The United States minister to Panama, John G. South, engineered a peace treaty that permitted the Kuna Indians to regain their autonomy. The Panamanian government pulled out of the area and granted the Kuna an autonomous region of their own.
Life does have its turning points, and in the case of my father-in-law, his life hinged on that seemingly innocuous telegram, which arrived in time to save his life. My family owes its existence to that telegram, and without that curious twist of fate, who knows what my world would be like.